On Ignorance

Phil Ford

The other day my daughter asked me what “ignorant” means. It’s one of those words which is itself an abstraction, surprisingly hard to define in concrete terms, although we know the concrete manifestations the instant we see them. I guess the obvious thing to do is to compare it to stupidity: stupidity is about poor mental functioning, the relative inability to put knowledge to good use, while ignorance is simply the absence of knowledge. So from that point of view, it’s worse to be stupid. A stupid person will stay stupid, while an ignorant person can go read a book or something (I’m thinking of the ugly-drunk perplex of the famous Winston Churchill story). But then again, Frank Zappa once said that while stupidity has a certain charm, ignorance does not. Stupidity is blameless, while ignorance carries some responsibility. Or another way of putting it: ignorance is a willed state. And ignorance can be very intelligent, in its way.

I forget what I said to Alice in answer to her question, but I’ve come to think of ignorance as the business of recasting the world as self. Think of it this way: there’s you, and there’s everything that’s not-you, and there’s a whole lot more of the latter than the former. But the self wants to convert everything that is not-self into self; it would fill the universe with itself if it could, and so it does the next best thing, recasting the world in its own terms, seeing itself reflected in everything it encounters.


This happens in a couple of ways. I could look at a piece of music (say) and think, that’s not my thing. I’m about X (avant-garde noise art), not Y (opera). I hear the vibrato-ed chest-tone sound of a trained singer and instantly reach for the scan button on my car radio. In recognizing the sound I dump it into the mental folder marked “opera.” And that folder is in the cabinet marked “stuff I don’t like.” So Y is given a particular function: not-me. It’s not exactly that I remain ignorant of it; I maintain a low level of functional awareness of Y, I assign a certain generalized meaning to it, all of which is concerned with its positional relationship to myself.


Or, contrariwise, I could like something else, maybe really really like it, say “this music is me, man,” join a fan club, collect all the B-sides, write blog posts about it. We would not say that this is a state of ignorance—quite the opposite. This is knowledge, expertise. But from another point of view it’s still ignorance, or can be, because saying “I’m about this” is the obverse of “I’m not about that.” I assign my favorite music a meaning that is more minutely detailed, a hi-res image full of facts and dates, but its final shape, its boundary, again simply traces the boundary of self — it fills out a positive rather than negative image of the self.


So if liking things is ignorant and disliking things is ignorant, what’s the alternative? I think this is why so much aesthetic philosophy is oriented towards a notion of disinterested contemplation and the autonomy of the art object. The idea of disinterested knowledge is something that fortifies the autonomy of the outside world, that which we encounter and does not change itself to suit us. (Philip K. Dick once defined reality as that which does not not go away when we stop believing in it.) The trick is that we are impelled to encounter things — we have an interest in doing so, but the interest is itself selfless, aimed at diminishing the self in encounters with the world that are themselves disinterested. Voila, purposiveness without purpose.


Perhaps this is why it’s actually kind of hard to write about the music we love most. You write about those things that you love, but in the slightly dutiful way you love your Aunt Sue. You don’t, as a rule, write about the music that was playing when you got your first kiss or that comforted you when your Mom died. “Too personal,” we’d say, and we’d be right. (Though avoiding the personal can itself become a kind of ignorance, too.)


In our graduate education we’re trying to roll back the frontiers of our personal ignorance — trying to learn the basics of a whole lot of things, regardless of whether we like them or not. Hate Wagner? Tough, you still have to listen to him. Musicology (or any academic field) isn’t really ultimately about “doing what you love,” and that’s actually one of the best things about it.


There’s a trick, though. I said before that ignorance can be very intelligent. Sometimes the self proudly and consciously defends its ignorance. Chris Rock did a very funny, expletive-laced rant on the subject: to paraphrase, ignorance loves to not know. But the self is also very good at hiding its purposes from itself (a point I’ve made at length) and can easily picture its not-knowing as wisdom. It’s the easiest thing in the world to encounter some idea, turn it into a reflection of myself (it’s me/it’s not-me), and convince myself that what I’ve done is a “critique” or an “analysis” when really all I’ve done is confirm my habits and prejudices. What’s the difference between an honest encounter with an idea we don’t like and an ignorant one? It’s kind of hard to say in the abstract, but in graduate education it’s the difference that makes all the difference. Students who do well in the coursework stage of their Ph.D. and stall out in candidacy are often the ones who don’t really learn to recognize their own higher ignorance—the clever, high-functioning ignorance, the kind that looks like intelligence.


We tend to think that academic work is a purely intellectual challenge, but if you’re doing it right, it challenges everything about us — it challenges us to know ourselves and not just the things we study. It sets us tasks we are bound to fail.* Failure, and fear of failure, is not a reason to not try. I suppose this is a roundabout way of continuing the post I wrote a month ago and which has generate some comment. My favorite response came from Tha Notorious TRJ of the Rambler:


But where’s the hope? I’m still here, pretty happy, doing what I want (which does not involve a university), no more or less worried about the future than any of my peers. I’d like more time to study (who wouldn’t?), but I’ve not said goodbye to anything. I don’t know if I have a magic formula, or if I’m lucky, or what, but my advice to anyone reading posts like Phil’s (in spite of its excellent advice) who find themselves wracked with doubt is this: decide what it is you want from your PhD, continually remind yourself of that wish, and be prepared to live or die by it. The anxieties that PhD study entails, damaging relationships, health and finances along the way, can be traced back, I believe, to a lack of confidence in why you started out on this path. Hold tight onto that, and none of the rest should frighten you.

*Recognizing your own ignorance is an endless process. My dissertation looks like a grand monument to ignorance to me now, though I thought it was pretty great the day I finished it.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
This entry was posted in Education. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to On Ignorance

  1. Paul says:

    Very interesting post, although I’m inclined to disagree with the zero-sum premise. Just because I like X does not mean that I don’t also like Y, even if there is a limit to the quantity and variety of music that we can comprehend in a lifespan. Being interested or investing oneself in a certain type of music is not ignorance but human nature. I’m inclined to believe that “disinterested contemplation” is not possible, but it is surely missing the point: by and large we listen to music because we’re interested in it. Which is exactly why I would ever be inclined to write about it.
    I may be blinded by youthful ignorance, but I do believe that the interest in academia lies in the interaction between the different interests, different beliefs, different biases, etc., that we all rightfully hold. Instead of feigning neutrality, can’t we openly admit what we really think? We will no doubt learn in the process.

  2. Phil Ford says:

    Hi Paul —
    Thanks for your comment.
    Being disinterested isn’t the same as being uninterested. Your experience of music can be disinterested (you don’t have a dog in this fight) and still very intense, very important to you. John Cage once said that he didn’t want anything from sounds — didn’t need sound to “talk to him,” didn’t want sounds to fall in love, etc. Video here:

    But Cage’s life was, to all appearances and from all accounts, a life filled with wonder. (I’m not a Cagean, but I like this clip.) “Neutrality” is the last thing I’d want. The concept of neutrality rests on a dualism of objectivity/subjectivity that I think is basically bogus and unhelpful.
    Theres a great essay by Chuck Klosterman about the idea of “cultural betrayal” that covers some of this ground. I should write about that some time.

  3. Lyle Sanford says:

    Wonderful post. Reminded me of, and sent me back to, your “Where is the self that performs?” post. I’d quibble that ignorance can be, but doesn’t necessarily have to be, a willed state. Your point of it being a way to define the self is terrific. Hope you come back to the dualism of objectivity/subjectivity, and the challenge “to know ourselves and not just the things we study”. Maybe one way of talking about the “in the flow” state is that the music is remaking you while you’re making it.

  4. David Cavlovic says:

    So THAT explains the Bush Administration!

  5. Lyle Sanford says:

    Phil – Just came across this in the Wikipedia entry on Daniel Goleman:
    The following quote is widely misattributed to R.D. Laing but appears in Goleman’s (1985) book Vital Lies, Simple Truths: “The range of what we think and do is limited by what we fail to notice. And because we fail to notice that we fail to notice there is little we can do to change until we notice how failing to notice shapes our thoughts and deeds.”

  6. Phil Ford says:

    Wow, Lyle, that’s a great quote. Thanks.

Comments are closed.